Ethiopia risks splitting into small regional units if the government allows the Sidama in the south to declare its own state in five months.
Though the push for unilateral declaration of a Sidama federal state by July 18 was thwarted after the election board of Ethiopia promised to hold a referendum in five months, the government is facing a delicate balance between allowing the Sidama state and setting a precedent for other regions like Tigray in the north, or blocking the separation and inviting violence.
The Sidama, who are about three million out of the total population of 103 million, have agitated for years to leave the diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region, of which they are a part, to create their own state.
Million Tumato, president of the Sidama Liberation Movement Party, announced the delay in declaring a new region, but some activists who do not agree with the decision remain apprehensive.
Observers say the constitutional provision that allows for self-determination of regions or nations is now a major challenge following the coming into office of Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, as he initiated wide-ranging political reforms.
Article 39 provides that every state, nationality and people in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.
At present, Ethiopia is partitioned into nine semi-autonomous regions.
The Constitution requires the government to organise a referendum for any ethnic group that wants to form a new entity.
The Constitution describes a “nation, nationality or people" as a group of people who have or share large measure of a common culture or similar customs, language and belief in a common or related identities
Mesfin Kebede, a political analyst based in Addis Ababa told The EastAfrican that the problem is that Ethiopians are now grappling with the new freedoms after centuries of under high-handed rulers, and Dr Abiy did not prepare them for the dramatic reforms.
He said the problem is that the regions were carved out based on ethnicity—except the south, which includes minorities apart from the Sidama.
The Sidama belong to the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement, same as former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and are partners in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Elias Meseret, a journalist based in Addis Ababa said the government’s push for a referendum is likely to cool down the agitation.
Dr Abiy took office in April 2018 after years of anti-government protests, freed political prisoners, lifted a ban on political parties and groups that had been branded terrorists and allowed freedom of the media houses.
Since Dr Abiy took office, Ethiopia has been rocked by ethnic conflicts and regions have been mobilising to demand self-determination and proportional political representation.
Violent clashes have erupted in different parts of the country, costing many lives and causing massive displacement of ethnic minorities.
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in its latest report—Ethiopia’s Power, Security and Democracy Dilemma—says the state needs to be assertive and inclusive at the same time.
“Failure in either task will jeopardise the transition to democracy. Decisive and strong leadership is needed to push for political liberalisation and forge coherence in the ruling party and government. Given the current schism in the EPRDF, a major shake-up of the party may be needed,” said Semir Yusuf, ISS Senior Researcher based in Addis Ababa.
For instance, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the architect of today’s EPRDF under the late Meles Zenawi—but who are now being weeded out from the centre of political and economic power—have also shown signs of secession.
Through their television, Domtse Weyane (DW)—the Voice of the Rebels—the Tigray have been calling for greater autonomy of their northern region and shared resources.
These developments have raised questions whether Dr Abiy’s honeymoon is over and the reforms could backfire.
These questions came to the fore last month when gunmen assassinated five government and military officials, including the army chief, in what was described as a coup attempt in Amhara state.
But the Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya Meles Alem Tikea says that to focus on the challenges in Ethiopia would be to miss the real story. He says that in any democracy, no leader can cut their way to greatness without encountering pitfalls.
“While we admit that there are open challenges registered in pursuit of this vision, we know that they are not a monopoly of Ethiopia. The world over, when there is a distinct paradigm shift in national leadership or politics, such challenges are inevitable,” he said.